Four countries from home – transit in New Caledonia

Day 3,277 since October 10th 2013: 199 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home, min 24 hrs in each country and 1 pandemic! 

(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross which I represent as a Goodwill Ambassador).

Making the best of the situation

pano

Thanks to recent support from governments and shipping companies we are now down to the final four countries. The road ahead is however long and complicated. And I am tired.

Last week’s entry: The Kingdom of Tonga and “Highland Chief” – passenger no. 1

New Caledonia is a lot of things, but not a country. The history is fascinating, the landscape is gorgeous, people are nice, the capital is modern, the main island is large, and there is plenty to explore. Remarkably the pandemic appears to be over in New Caledonia. As soon as I had left Swire Shipping good ship Highland Chief, I was told I could take my mask off. I wasn’t tested negative for COVID-19 before entering New Caledonia because nobody cares. The health care system can handle which ever complications there might be I was told. Hand sanitizer, temperature checks and QR codes are not a part of every day life. You might have to put on a mask if you visit the hospital. But apart from that it appears that life in New Caledonia has returned to pre-pandemic conditions. Meanwhile it appears I’ll have to do three weeks hotel quarantine in Tuvalu if I can make it there at all. I’m happy to do that quarantine – I’ll play by any rules to get this project done.

1

Place des Cocotiers is a lovely park in Noumea which has been around for more than a hundred years. It fills up with people around lunch time.

1b

On my very first day I went to a marina. It seems hopeless. There are also no cruise ships and no ferries to Vanuatu. And Vanuatu is only 250km (155mi away).

We are rapidly approaching October 10th which has a psychological weight hanging over me. It will mark nine years of hard work, dedication, motivation, creative solutions, and keep on keeping on attitude. Not nine years as for most working people. This will mark 9 x 365 days of waking up in mission impossible. Keep in mind that I once had to become a resident in a country in order to apply for a visa for the next. And keep in mind that four of the countries we have reached this year were in collaboration with foreign governments. Looking back, I carry mental baggage from lying sick with cerebral malaria for weeks, from being at gunpoint in a highly unstable situation, from finding five dead bodies during a high risk visit to a country, and naturally the stress of having a complex target of historical proportion ahead of me for nearly a decade. I recently updated my profiles at Nomad Mania and Most Traveled People and found that I am now comfortably within the 300 most traveled people in the world. I’ve been there before but as we were going nowhere for nearly two years in Hong Kong, while other parts of the world remained open for travel for others, I fell back to be among the 400 most traveled people. This is essentially the Olympics of travel. Elite level. This year we will reach eight billion people on this pale blue dot of ours. That places me in the 0.000004% - isn’t that crazy? It has come at a cost and I do struggle with inner demons. It has also come with a great knowledge of much and a phenomenal number of personal experiences. I can testament to that most people are good and well-meaning people simply based on a sizable sample size.

2

Senegalese chicken yassa made by a Cameroonian in New Caledonia. The best!! 

New Caledonia is very French. I have opted to use Airbnb and my host is a lovely woman from Cameroon who cooked Senegalese Yassa for me on my first night in Noumea. Oh, the memories.  And two absolutely amazing countries to be reminded of. She works in insurance and comes from the French speaking part of Cameroon. I haven’t really had to speak French since 2016 where it was a necessity to learn and learn fast!! Central Africa remains the hardest part of the Saga. That speaks volumes all things considered. It hasn’t been easy to move about in the Pacific during pandemical times. And yet, it is still easier than what we accomplished in Central Africa years ago. I never had any issues with ordinary people. It was always the officials and especially those in uniform who became monsters. The Saga went through Senegal twice and Cameroon four times. Beautiful countries. Interesting countries. Wonderful people. Good food! Nice to stay with Rahissa in Noumea.

3

On my walk to Parc Zoologique I randomly came across this?!

3b

Yes, those are two female peacocks in the tree and a male on the ground. Parc Zoologique, Noumea.

I’m not sure what to do with three weeks in New Caledonia? I was really hoping to make the best of it by reuniting with my beloved ultra-wifey. But she is unfortunately tied up with work and couldn’t make a visit now. I don’t really know anyone in New Caledonia. There is no Maersk or Swire office to give a talk at, I don’t need to do the project related tasks, I’m not overly motivated to do much on my own, and during a visit to Parc Zoologique Et Forestier Michel Corbasson I found 99% of the writing to be in French. The Parc Zoologique was however nice enough. A kind of botanical garden with a lot of birds on display. I walked to the park which was about 5km (3mi) under the scorching sun. The humidity is right up there too. The drivers in and around Noumea are surprisingly considerate! Truly surprising given the aggressive driving I have experienced elsewhere in the Pacific. The people are always nice but most places they become terrorists when they get behind the wheel. In New Caledonia drivers slow down and hold back by the slightest indication that you might cross the road. So nice.

4

I love ANYWHERE which sells Danish made leverpostej!! :)

“So nice” could be a tourist slogan for New Caledonia. It really seems like a perfect tourist destination. I’m not at all in the right mindset to enjoy it though. I am very much ready to go home and have the Saga behind me. Four more countries. Sure, “only four countries”. But we need to get special permission for nearly everything. Special permission to join all the ships and special permission to enter the countries when arriving on a ship. And PCR test, rapid tests, and COVID-19 regulations are still very much a part of most of the Pacific. Here’s essentially what we have ahead of us: 6-7 months. Nine container ships. Three revisits to countries. Hotel quarantine. Covid-19 procedures. Transit periods. Bureaucracy, logistics and lots of work right to the end. I made a new status update for you which explains the progress we have had this year and what we still have ahead of us. In a glass half full world we have had tremendous support from shipping companies and governments this year.

5

Click HERE or on the image to watch the latest status update (8min).

People generally smell nicer in Noumea than in other places I have been. Maybe it’s a French thing? While I speak limited French and most people here speak limited English, they are very willing to try. And we always seem to find a common understanding speaking some French and some English. The food is good too! But I feel really alone. That loneliness like being in a room full of people and yet feeling lonely. I managed to reach out to Charlene Ducrot at the French Red Cross in Paris. We met back in 2017 and she was quick to connect me with Sandrine Buffeteau at the French Red Cross in New Caledonia. As such I’ll be meeting with them next week. And I had a lovely interview with Sophie from Le Figaro (a newspaper of record in France) which I look forward to share. I made a video promoting Salomon, which turned out so well that they want to use it on their platform – so that is good. And our friends at Ross.dk and GEOOP have been reaching out which has been really lovely. Ross.dk and GEOOP have been project partners since day one and without their loyal support there would have been no Saga to begin with. I got to meet three new faces at Ross through a video call: Freja, Cecilia, and Danek. Great guys. The call was in preparation of the completion of Once Upon A Saga. Mentally that is still quite distant to me. But they are there for me! :)

6

Click HERE or on the image to watch this interview with Patryk from March 2022 (10min).

When in doubt: hike!! While visiting Parc Zoologique I noticed a mountain in the horizon. It was Mont Dore which peaks at 772m (2,533ft). It had a magnetic draw on me and I soon knew it was good for my mental health: physical activity, sunshine, fresh air, a firm goal, a reachable challenge, and spectacular beauty. A taxi got me to the trailhead. The first driver I approached got really confused really fast. But the second driver (standing next to him) saw no problem at all and away we went. It wasn’t long before we were small talking and he obviously sympathized with Ukraine in the dreadful ongoing war. We could both agree that it was horrible.

7

Not hard to spot who this taxi driver sides with. Many would agree with him too.

7b

Heading up Mont Dore.

7c

On Mont Dore.

The hike was something. The route was well marked and it wasn’t long before I felt like I was back in Hong Kong but without the nutcases. There is much I miss about Hong Kong. It was the closest I’ve experienced to normality during the past near nine years. Crazy to think that during the height of a global pandemic – but it is true. I had routines, friends, I unpacked my bags, and I slept in the same bed for more than a year. The landscape around Mont Dore looked a lot like Hong Kong to me. Beautiful. There was very little shade. I had brought some bread and some Danish leverpostej (pork liver pate). It was a tough hike for me. I’m certainly not in the shape I was last year. But it was good for me. I had my bread and leverpostej at the peak and then made my way down the other side of the mountain.

8

Looking down at Noumea (across the bay) from the peak of Mont Dore.

8b

Fontaine de Plum.

When I finally reached paved road again, I followed it for a while hoping to reach a bus stop. Interestingly I came across a fresh water spring called Fontaine de Plum. An elderly couple was there filling up water bottles. I quenched my thirst in the fresh water, greeted the couple, and continued down the road looking for a bus stop. It wasn’t long before the elderly couple caught up to me in their van and the husband shouted something, which I interpreted as an offer to get a ride. He didn’t speak much English but I was able to explain in French that I was heading back to town and just needed a ride to a bus stop. Such kindness is common in the world. Isn’t that reassuring? While seated next to the wife in their van, the husband expressed his sadness about the situation in Ukraine. I agreed full heartedly. I spend about 50 minutes most days listening to news updates and the situation in Ukraine has been a part of the news since the war broke out. A tragedy for sure. Yet – still interesting that two New Caledonians independently of each other would approach me about it on the same day?

9

I'm not a religious man. But I do enjoy sitting inside a hundred year old cathedral. Cathedrale Saint Joseph, Noumea.

The following days I could feel my body as if I hadn’t used it all year. Good though. I have looked up what the highest mountain in New Caledonia might be and it turns out to be Mont Panié at 1,628m (5,341ft). I actually knew before disembarking Highland Chief. Mont Panié is almost at the far north-western point of Grand Terre which the locals call “Le Caillou” (the pebble). The “pebble” is nearly 400km (250mi) long and Noumea is found around 400km (250mi) away from the trailhead. I’ve rented a car and will make a weekend of it. Friday will mostly be spent driving, Saturday will mostly be spent hiking, Sunday will mostly be spent driving, and Monday morning I’ll return the car. Seems reasonable to me. This year we made it to the highest point of Hong Kong, Fiji, and Samoa. We might as well add New Caledonia.

10

Looking at Neptune Pacific Direct Lines (NPDL) Capitaine Magellan, which is heading to Vanuatu. Unfortunately NPDL did not get back to me in time and she left.

Noumea seems nice. I’ve been walking about here and there. My mind isn’t too happy about three weeks of “waiting” although I’m clearly in a lovely part of the world. It would have been fantastic to share it with ultra-wifey. But it wasn’t meant to be. I might not even get on the ship when it arrives? The ship is third-party meaning that it is not owned by Swire Shipping but they are using it. Kind of like a rented car. Swire Shipping has said they will ask the owners if they are okay with taking a passenger. It is a short voyage. Who knows if it works out? Hopefully it does. I cannot even begin to explain how tired I am of uncertainty. I know a lot of people are rooting for me and I do feel the love. Thanks for all the support. It will be good to get out of Noumea and have the freedom and solitude and freedom of a rental car. I’m sure I will return with some stunning footage to share with you. It is truly beautiful around here.

 

 

I would like to thank our esteemed partners for their invaluable contributions to Once Upon A Saga: DB Schenker Denmark, Kameli, Red Sand Solutions, Salomon, the Danish Red Cross and Ross DK / Geoop

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If you enjoyed this blog or find that I am doing a good job then you can support here below. The Saga welcomes funding. Thank you :)

 

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Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - battling inner demons (again).

"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"

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The Kingdom of Tonga and “Highland Chief” – passenger no. 1

Day 3,270 since October 10th 2013: 199 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home, min 24 hrs in each country and 1 pandemic! 

(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross which I represent as a Goodwill Ambassador).

Tonga is a fascinating country

panoEvery country in the world is potentially the best country. There isn’t a country in the world which isn’t the best to someone. And which ever country you visit, you are a guest. As a guest I hope you will always strive to be polite and at your best behaviour.

Last week’s entry: TIME TRAVEL on “Papuan Chief” – passenger no. 1 (reaching Tonga)

“What is the best country in the world?” It is an incredibly meaningless and highly generic question. I once heard my friend Gunnar Garfors argue that the question really is meant as a tip for the one who is asking. And before you can answer what the best country for that person might be, you would have to know something about them. Within Once Upon A Saga the way has always been to look for the positive, the interesting, the unique, and never the negative. Something which I believe the world is in great need of in these sensational times of ours. It would not be hard to do the opposite and look for the negative. Every country has a piece of plastic floating in the wind. Corruption is a huge problem across the world. Greed and a general lack of empathy is never very far away. Incompetence and laziness are also easy to point out. The best country in the world? Is the best country supposed to be the lesser of many evils? For most people, I would imagine their “favourite country” is the one in which they have collected the most positive experiences. A great deal of times I have been asked what I think of Tonga. I have always replied: it is a beautiful country, the people are kind, the food is good, the history is interesting.

1

The Kingdom of Denmark and the Kingdom of Tonga both share the red/white colors in our flags. The palace is seen in the back. Ross.DK is seen up front :)

Did I remember to tell you that as the good ship Papuan Chief was making its way toward Tongatapu, the main island of Tonga's 169 islands, I sighted whales shooting out of the ocean and crashing back in again under their powerful weight. Tongan waters are a breeding ground for humpback whales, which make their way to the warm waters every year from the Arctic. It is a popular attraction to go swimming with these gentle giants. Or…it used to be ahead of the pandemic. The pandemic has been such a destructive force to tourism all around the world. As I shared in more detail within last week’s entry, Tonga was struck by a terrifying volcanic eruption followed by a destructive tsunami, back in mid-January this year. Tonga is constantly subjected to volcanic activity but scientists had detected anomalies back in December 2021 so people were warned. Having spoken to many about their personal experiences I found it particularly interesting how several described the three bangs from the eruption as almost painfully deafening. Nuku’alofa is after all 70km (43mi) away from the volcano. The reality of things is however that neither the eruption nor the tsunami have done the most damage to Tonga over the past years. The lack of tourism during the pandemic and the seasonal storms have definitely set their mark on the country.

2

My ride for a day.

Thanks to the extra donations I received on my arrival to Tonga I was able to rent a car for a day and drive around Tongatapu. It is a great way to explore and get a good understanding of where I am. The car rental was TOP 80.00 (USD 35) for 24 hrs and then I had to fill the tank which didn’t amount to much as I only drove 106km (66mi) and rarely made it above 40kph (25mph). The road conditions often did not allow for more than that. I left Nuku’alofa and drove out to Foui which is almost as far you can go to the west on Tongatapu. Then I turned left and followed the coastal road southeast as far as it took me. I stopped several times along the way to take photos or to see some of the locations I had interest in: Tsunami Rock, Mapa’a Vaea Blowholes, Anahula Cave, Ha’amonga a’Maui Trilithon, Paepae o Tele’a, and the Captain Cook Landing Site. Early in the day I saw a sign to White Sands Beach Resort and took a turn there hoping to find myself a cup of coffee. As I drove down the road which led straight to the beach, I saw well maintained fields on both sides of the road. But as I reached the end of the road there was no beach resort. There was a bit of mangled debris and not much else. I checked my phone and found the resort on google maps. It looked really nice and had some splendid recommendations in the user comments. Then I searched for the resort on the internet and found that it had been swept away in seconds during the tsunami.

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Presumably the aftermath of what the January 2022 tsunami did to this shipping container.

3c

Tsunami Rock. It could be a rock the demigod Maui threw at a rooster which was annoying him. It could also be a piece of the nearby reef which broke off during a powerful tsunami a few thousand years ago (WATCH VIDEO).

3d

Anahula Cave

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Ha’amonga a’Maui Trilithon. Possibly built by King Tu'itatui in the 13th century to honor his two sons. Each upright stone weighs 40 tons. It may also have been built by the demigod Maui (WATCH VIDEO).

Everyone I met during my daytrip around the island were super sweet, kind and helpful. Pretty much all the shops were run by Chinese and had more or less the same articles for sale. There was a lot of farmlands which seemed to be put into good use. When the volcanic eruption covered everything in a thick layer of ash some saw it as a curse while other saw it as a blessing. Some crops apparently did better than others and for some the mineral rich ash was a good thing. I stopped at another beach resort hoping to find lunch. But all the activity there was related to renovations and getting the place open for tourism. This resort was untouched by the tsunami but had no doubt been harmed by the 2.5-year shutdown. One of the most common questions I have been met with in Tonga has been: “are you going to Vava’u?” And the answer has been "no" although it definitely sounds like a reason to return. Vava’u is an island quite far from Tongatapu island. While Tonga is made up by relatively small islands the country actually covers an area of the Pacific Ocean equivalent to the size of Japan. And on a side note, the Tu’i Tonga Empire at one point ruled (according to some) as much as 2/3 of the Pacific Ocean. There is definitely something more to explore!

4

The circle of life. Makes for good entertainment when you want to relax.

I had the rental car most of Friday and delivered it back Saturday morning. The kind lady at the rental place gave me a ride back to Toni’s Guesthouse. We had some pretty heavy rain that Saturday and I for the most part stayed indoor. Rain is good in Tonga as it fills up the water tanks. Most fresh water in Tonga is sourced through rainwater harvesting. It was somewhat of a problem when the volcanic ash came down and mixed with people’s freshwater. My initial thought was that it must still have been drinkable? But I read that there were small glasslike crystals in the ash which could cause long-term damage if you drank the water. Someone however told me that that was just an initial worry, and that once the ash had settled in the water tanks, it was fine to drink. Anyway, I filled my water bottle straight from the rainwater running off the roof. It tasted great.

5

The former location of White Sands Beach Resort. Gone in seconds.

Sunday is its own thing in Tonga! I had been invited to go to church which everyone told me would be a wonderful experience. The singing is apparently magnificent. I was up early Sunday morning waiting to be collected. I had asked which clothes I should wear and was told that I would be given the clothes I needed to wear. Extra interesting. I was also told I should be ready at 09:30am. Unfortunately nobody came for me and I was left sitting on the porch at Toni’s Guesthouse from where I could hear the beautiful singing from 2-3 nearby churches. It later turned out that the guy who was supposed to bring me had been at the hospital with three of his four children. The flu was going around in Nuku’alofa and it had been too much for the young ones whom had been hospitalized. Thankfully they were alright. I missed out on the church but not the lunch which follows. My neighbour at Toni’s Guesthouse was an old man from Vava’u. His name was Uhila Topou and he had come for the planning of a funeral. We had talked a few times over the days and his daughter (in her twenties) had now joined him at the guesthouse. Uhila means “light”. When Uhila’s daughter returned from church she soon after brought us some food. Then some more food. And then some more food!! Yup – lack of food was not an issue. Among the many things on the table I was particularly fond of the Lu Moa (baked coconut chicken). And I couldn’t help muse over how the Tongan word for chicken (moa) in New Zealand is the name for a now extinct 3m (10ft) tall flightless bird.

6

Delicious Lu Moa. Wrapped in taro leaves.

I did a bit more exploring during Monday. But the day was mostly spent getting confirmation on whether I was joining Swire Shipping’s good ship Highland Chief or not. Understandably Swire’s management have a lot on their plate and it is kind of them to accommodate Once Upon A Saga. I was still waiting for confirmation to hear that everything was okay. It is simply not straight forward to join a container ship within the Pacific during a global pandemic. Yes – the pandemic is still ongoing, albeit one must admit, some places more than others. A hundred years ago you would simply walk up to a ship and negotiate with the captain. These days we needed clearance from Swire Shipping management in Singapore, from the captain of the ship, from the Ministry of Health, Immigration, Customs, and Port Authorities in Tonga, and from a number of authorities in New Caledonia as well. My goodness…but the good news is that you don’t need to hear about all of that in detail. You can just smile knowing the fact that it once more all worked out.

7

Talking to Mr Kitione Mokosini about the importance of the Red Cross.

On Tuesday morning my second appointment was with Vaiola Hospital where PCR tests are done between 09:00am-midday. My first appointment was with Mr Kitione Mokosini who some call “Mr media” in Tonga. Kitione has been in the media business since 1973 which is nothing short of impressive. We met for a few beers and a delicious burger the night before. Kitione wanted to prepare the interview with me ahead of time. He had brought Hans with him who is a Dane that has been living in Tonga for the past 25 years. The three of us had a lovely evening. The interview started at 09:00am and was all about the Red Cross. The interview had been organized by the Tongan Red Cross Society and Kitione had done his homework. We spoke for about an hour about the importance of the Red Cross and got around the flooding in Pakistan, the war in Ukraine, and naturally the Red Cross’s importance in Tonga. It was a really nice interview and after it was done, I raced to the hospital, got tested and was told it would be a few hours before I had the result.

8

The local market in downtown Nuku'alofa.

The stress was building up within my body. The agent had told me Highland Chief was due to depart at 8pm. I have never tested positive for COVID-19 but there are plenty of stories like that and most of them end with that time the test eventually came back positive. Was the result going to be positive or negative? If I tested positive then I would not be able to join the ship and I would have to wait three weeks for the next ship to arrive. I would definitely then be on my way with the ferry to Vava’u hoping to swim with whales and making the best of the situation. But my number one priority is getting home asap which does not involve any form of delay. I spent some of the waiting time working out of Friends Café in downtown Nuku'alofa. And I took a few minutes to browse around at the nearby local market. I have admired the local attire of Tongan’s since I arrived. In a time where most of us look the same (including most Tongan’s) it is always nice to see traditional attire. The Ta’ovala is a woven mat which is wrapped around the waist. The Kiekie is worn by women and looks like a woven belt with stands hanging down all along its side. At the market I found a lot of this and took it all in as I walked up and down the many isles. When I eventually grew too impatient (especially as both agent and captain were requesting my test results) I began walking towards the hospital. And after 45min I had reached it without receiving the much awaited call. I found my way to the person in charge of the test results and she very politely explained they had done many tests that day and that the lab was busy. Four hours had now passed. But then the kind lady suddenly recognized me as "the man her government had invited to arrive by ship". That seemed really random but helpful in the situation. Five minutes later I had my printout: negative. Thank goodness.

9

Swire Shipping's good ship Highland Chief on the move.

I was onboard around 6:30am and was welcomed by Captain Wen Bao Sheng from China. I was given the passenger cabin which was identical to the one I had stayed in onboard Papuan Chief eight days earlier. And the accommodation of the Highland Chief looked identical to that of both Papuan Chief and Vanuatu Chief which I had joined from Fiji to Samoa. So, it felt a lot more familiar coming onboard than what it otherwise does. A nice feeling of familiarity I might add after years and years of constant change. The sun was setting about the time I joined. Swire’s agent in Nuku’alofa had picked up my passport earlier in the day and ensured my exit stamp. I saw the sky turn violet and then dark as we departed the “Friendly Islands”. Thank you and farewell.

10

The entire crew of Highland Chief!! 23 men including me. And one woman. Seven nationalities: Chinese, Filipino, Sri Lankan, Ukrainian, Tuvaluan, Fijian, and one Dane.

And back onboard yet another container ship I was “home”. A great sense of familiarity in a project which has involved 199 countries and several territories. Africa is the worlds most diverse continent with 54 countries and thousands of languages. That speaks volumes when you consider the diversity of Asia from the Arab nations of the Middle East, across incredible India, the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, all of China, most of Russia, South East Asia etc. Yeah – and Papua New Guinea might just be the worlds most diverse country. I have seen and experienced an incredible amount of change over the past (almost) nine years and familiarity is good to have now and again. Onboard I can do laundry, take warm showers, eat three good meals a day, build up a good sleep rhythm, work out, watch movies, listen to podcasts, read books, and the rate of insects drop to about 0%. Low budget accommodation on tropical islands seems to come with a lot of ants, cockroaches, spiders, millipedes, and the ocassional centipedes. At sea I sometimes spot a lazy ant onboard one of the ships and there are at times fruit flies. But nothing in the big picture. The ships are airconditioned and Captain Wen Bao Sheng and his brave crew made sure I felt welcome onboard.

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Captain Wen Bao Sheng and 3rd officer Kathlene Lapidez Ganancial on the bridge during the safety drill.

It was a short voyage and I only spent three nights onboard. We had a safety drill while I was onboard but all I had to do was report to the bridge. Easy peasy for me. I could have put on safety shoes, a boilersuit, a hardhat and joined the drill as an observer. But I’ve seen my fair share and, on the bridge, I could enjoy the view and sip tea.

12

Time to kick back for a few hours.

On my last night onboard, we had a BBQ. It wasn’t particularly for me but the timing was good. Most ships aim at having a BBQ once a month when weather and conditions permit for it. Highland Chief had not had a BBQ for 1.5 months so everyone was looking forward to it. The grill was fired up, the music came out, meat, fish, and shrimp were on the table and it was time to kick back. I believe I’ve mentioned many times before that seafarers work far more hours than the average worker. So, it is only fair they get to enjoy life once in a while. Especially during these dreadful times when they cannot be afforded shore leave (due to the potential spread of the pandemic).

13

Great crew!! Thanks for all the kindness onboard :)

The good ship continued her way to New Caledonia through the night. We retarded the clock 1 hour twice on the voyage between Tonga and New Caledonia. The two-hour difference meant that I woke up long before my alarm went off. I looked out the porthole and saw land. Yet another French territory. I think I haven’t seen one since the Caribbean? Swire’s good ship Arkadia leaves New Caledonia in about three weeks. There are no ferries, cruise ships, and I’ve been told no yachts to Vanuatu from New Caledonia. Silly as Vanuatu is really close all things considered. This is what makes a journey to every country without flying so hard. Ferries are disappearing while flight tickets are abundant. Because New caledonia is a territory, we continue to be left with four countries within this project. But this is a territory I have never been to before. And as such I notch slightly up the list as one of the worlds most travelled people.

14

Land in sight. Entering Canal Woodin. Beautiful.

The agent picked me up at 1:30pm. I said farewell to the Captain and anyone nearby. Then I walked down the gangway and the agent, Ms Weiting, drove me to the border police. My goodness I haven’t had to speak any French for quite some time. I’m definitely rusty. Nice to be back in a place where the electrical outlets look like the ones back home and people drive on the RIGHT side of the road. I’ve become so accustomed to people driving on the left side that I’ll likely get run over here. Noumea is also the most modern infrastructure I’ve seen since leaving New Zealand. Interesting as it’s just another rock in the Pacific Ocean. Possibly the best rock in the world if you ask the right person ;)

 

 

 

I would like to thank our esteemed partners for their invaluable contributions to Once Upon A Saga: DB Schenker Denmark, Kameli, Red Sand Solutions, Salomon, the Danish Red Cross and Ross DK / Geoop

Hi Res with Geoop

 

If you enjoyed this blog or find that I am doing a good job then you can support here below. The Saga welcomes funding. Thank you :)

 

 Patreon Picture2MobilePay

 

Best regards
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - still four countries from home.

"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"

 Once Upon A Saga logo small

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TIME TRAVEL on “Papuan Chief” – passenger no. 1 (reaching Tonga)

Day 3,263 since October 10th 2013: 199 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home, min 24 hrs in each country and 1 pandemic! 

(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross which I represent as a Goodwill Ambassador).

Reaching the Kingdom of Tonga

pano

Recipe for reaching Tonga from Samoa (without flying) in September 2022: gather some high-ranking government support, add bilateral government collaboration, test negative for COVID-19, gain access to a containership, cross your fingers.

Last week’s entry: Samoa in 4 words: God, Family, Food, and Rugby

It was the Hon. Leatinu’u Wayne So’oialo who drove me to the port. He and his wonderful family had taken exceptionally good care of me from the moment I reached Samoa, and now he was bringing me to she ship I would leave on. Door to door service. Kindness and generosity I shall never forget. At the port I was met by Talaia Mika from Talamua Online and Gutu Faasau from the Samoa Observer for my final thoughts on Samoa after my 17-day visit. I only had kind words to share.

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The legendary Hon. Leatinu’u Wayne So’oialo!!

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A quick selfie with the lovely Talaia Mika.

Then I boarded the good ship Papuan Chief. I signed my name into the logbook and my bags were disinfected before I was brought inside. This became the 31st time I would hitch a ride onboard a container ship (wild!) and the 4th vessel within Swire’s fleet. I’m grateful to all the shipping companies which have assisted. Especially the ones which have assisted in the face of COVID-19 restrictions. Swire Shipping has a special place in my heart. Their tan coloured uniforms, their no plastic bottle policy, their attentions to safety, the good atmosphere onboard their ships, and how easy they have always made it for me to come onboard. Back in the 60s and 70s it would have been very common to hitch a ride onboard a container ship. It gradually got less mainstream and for most people it is now impossible – especially during this age of COVID-19 restrictions. Restrictions which many don’t understand because they live in a bubble in a part of the world which has moved on. Keep in mind that vaccines were not equally distributed and that the healthcare system of every nation isn’t always as strong as desired.

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Yum! Good food onboard. Three meals a day :)

The omicron variant proved nearly impossible to control. When it broke out most countries abandoned their 0-case tolerance policies. It has also proven hard for the shipping industry to keep the virus at bay. But the shipping industry has done really well! To get onboard a ship you must first test negative for COVID-19 (PCR test – not rapid test). That has been the general rule for all the shipping companies I know of. What happens when you come onboard depends on company policy. Sometimes temperatures have been taken twice daily. Sometimes it has been a requirement to wear a mask and self-distance for a period. In nearly every case I have found that the seafarers are not permitted to leave the ship until the day they return home. That means no shore leave. The ship essentially becomes home for as long as the contract runs, which can sometimes be 8-10 months. In most cases I have also found that everyone onboard has their own cabin. All of this helps to limit the transmission of a virus. Yes, the industry has done well. But what happens when the virus makes its way onboard a ship anyway?

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Well, different companies have different models. Sometimes the infected seafarer is isolated and taken off duty. Sometimes the entire ship ends up being quarantined for several weeks before it can call the next port. And sometimes company policy is to disembark the infected seafarer at the first available port and have a replacement flown in. Swire Shipping has an excellent reputation within the business. And it is a reputation which has been earned. When I joined Papuan Chief, I was escorted to my cabin where I was handed Swire Shipping’s Outbreak Management Plan section 13, which covers Crew Change Protocols. I read it carefully. It covered every element from leaving home, transit, transportation, hotels, flights, joining the ship, while onboard, vaccination policy etc. I was told that I wasn’t restricted to my cabin but that I had to limit physical contact as much as possible. And that I did.

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The Captain made an announcement commemorating the late Queen Elizabeth II's death and the rise of King Charles III. I hold respect for the monarchy and am a supporter of the Danish Royal House which is led by Queen Margrethe II (my queen) who celebrates 50 years on the throne this year, and is now Europe's longest serving current head of state, and the only current queen regnant.

By the very few crewmembers I interacted with I could sense that it was yet another great crew. Swire Shipping is batting four of four ships with good atmosphere onboard. That cannot be a coincidence. Papuan Chief looked very familiar to me. In fact, it was nearly identical to Vanuatu Chief which had brought us to Samoa. Papuan Chief is however a smaller vessel but the accommodation seemed to be the same size. The ships messman was a lovely Fijian who axed (asked) me if I wanted my meals served to the cabin or if I wanted a specific time when I could dine alone in the galley? I could tell he was smiling behind his mask. If I was going to dine alone in the galley then I might as well have my meals served in my cabin – so I opted for that. I went up on the bridge a few times to refill my water bottle and I went out on deck a few times. I was on E deck just below the bridge. The crossing only took four days so I didn’t mind self-isolating, reading books, watching movies, listening to podcasts, and coordinating my arrival to Tonga. Swire Shipping offers 1GB wifi internet per week to its crew and I have had my own account and login since joining Suva Chief from Hong Kong to Australia earlier this year. It is not the fastest internet but it does what it has to. It is pretty good for sending text messages.

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Look how the mountains of American Samoa rise from the ocean!

Time travel is real!! The date line runs between Samoa and American Samoa which made things a bit weird. Let me explain. I woke up Thursday morning in Apia, Samoa. I joined Papuan Chief around 3pm. We departed Apia around 8pm and I went to sleep around 10pm. Nothing strange about any of that. I slept through the night while we travelled 76nm (141km/86mi). The sun came up and I got out of bed at 07:15am. I looked out the porthole and could see land as we had reached Pago Pago in American Samoa. But strangely it was Thursday morning?!? In Apia I had been 11hrs ahead of ultra-wifey who’s back home in Denmark. But in Pago Pago I was suddenly 13hrs behind her? While it seems utterly strange to experience two Thursdays in a row there is no real mystery. Ships travel across time zones all the time and adjust the clocks 1hr one way or the other. But when you cross the international dateline then you are crossing the 24hr line and adjust the clock 24hrs. With 24hrs in a day the day has to start and end somewhere as the sun goes up and down. And the sun of course doesn’t do that at all. You could technically travel under the sun for an entire day if you wanted to.

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Trying to understand how I had two Thursdays...

We stayed two nights in Pago Pago where we were all tested for COVID-19 on arrival. Everyone onboard had to walk down the gangway and to a container next to the ship where health authorities tested us. The crew consisted of 17 men and 3 women. We all tested negative. Pago Pago looked beautiful! Dramatically mountainous and I spotted a few peaks and ridges which were calling for me. Unfortunately, there was no shore leave. I did however get permission to walk down the gangway once more to meet with my friend Zach who lives in Pago Pago. It was the first time we got to meet. Due to the circumstances we both wore masks, didn’t shake hands, and sat 2m (6ft) apart. But it was still good to meet him. Zach has been instrumental in the positive forward momentum of the Saga lately. And he showed up with a box full of goodies for the crew and a local simcard for me. It was nice to chat for a bit but our time was limited and I soon had to return to the ship again. Unfortunately, the simcard did not work on my phone (different network) but I handed the box full of sweets to the galley and trust they were welcomed by the crew. Captain Dias Pelanda did everything he could to make me feel welcome onboard. We spoke on the phone several times and he apologized for the outbreak management onboard. He had nothing to apologize for. I had 5-star treatment onboard! Interestingly The Captain was from Sri Lanka and the Chief Mate was from Ukraine, exactly as it had been the case on Vanuatu Chief three weeks earlier.

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Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai island, the Kingdom of Tonga.

We reached Nuku’alofa around 6pm the day after leaving Pago Pago. This time we had lost an entire day as the clock went from midday Saturday September 10th to midday Sunday September 11th in less than a second. Monday afternoon we could start to see some of Tonga’s outer islands. I’m deeply fascinated by some of them. Lofi’a is a flattish looking volcanic island which has a lake in its centre so it looks like a donut from above. And right next to Lofi’a you have a tiny island called Kao which rises an amazing 1.033m (3.389ft) into the sky! We also came past Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai island which had the powerful volcanic eruption on January 15th 2022. The islands looked peaceful and it was hard to imagine that it was the scene of the largest recorded eruption since Krakatoa in 1883. But it was. And it was fascinating to see the island with my own eyes. I planned to leave the ship the next morning and get a fresh start. I do not like arriving to a new location after nightfall. The Fijian messman brought me my dinner at 6pm and I had a booking for a guesthouse the following day. But suddenly I was informed that I had to leave the ship or else the stevedores would not begin cargo operations!? What a surprise!! I absolutely cannot be a delay to any ship so I packed my bags asap and left the ship.  

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Before I rushed off the ship, Captain Dias Pelanda called upon anyone who had time to come for a group photo. I'm happy we got some of the crew :)

It was dark outside and I could see several vehicles parked on the wharf along with a team of stevedores hanging around in their PPE. As I came down the gangway, I walked towards the one who looked most authoritative. He seemed friendly and pointed me over to another guy. It was the authorities which had come to ensure I had a proper entry into the Kingdom of Tonga. Customs and Immigration was present and so was a representative from the Health Ministry. I was asked to fill out a form and then my passport was stamped. I was officially in. But what now? Swire Shipping’s agent was there to take care of me. A jolly fellow named Pilar who drove me straight to his office which was nearby.

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Pilar and I at the office in Nuku'alofa.

Pilar had to take care of some paperwork and I got to log on to the office wifi for a few minutes. Then Pilar helped me call Toni’s Guesthouse where I had my booking for the following day. We got a hold of Toni’s wife Leni who said it was okay if I needed to arrive that night, one day ahead of my booking. Then Pilar gave me a small tour of Nuku’alofa as we drove toward Toni’s Guesthouse. We made a stop at an ATM on the way so I could get some local coin. At the guesthouse I met 79-year-old Toni and his wife Leni. We had to “break” into a room because they had lost the keys. So late at night, I found myself unscrewing a slide lock from a door in the outskirts of Nuku’alofa within the Kingdom of Tonga. Once we managed to “break” into the room, Leni could clean and put some fresh bed lining on. And then I was all set up for my first night in country no. 199.

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This fellow showed up on the wall while I was sitting on my bed. It is a harmless spider - but a big one! And it slowly made its way closer, and closer to my pillow. What would you do? The pleasures of being on tropical islands...

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This dominant raintree sits at the bustling centre of Nuku'alofa, the capitol of the Kingdom of Tonga.

The next morning I headed into town with Toni and Leni. Their first ride into town is complimentary and a bit of a tour where Toni explained something about must buildings we passed. I had forgotten my GPS transmitter on the ship and was hoping to retrieve it before Papuan Chief departed. Toni’s Guesthouse is kind of in an urban forest some 8km (5mi) from the port. Once in town I got in touch with Pilar who got me on the phone with the Captain and 15 minutes later I had my GPS. I then proceeded on foot to the Digicel building. Moving about on foot in Nuku’alofa isn’t very common and I certainly felt the heat and humidity. But it is a good way to see a new place. After standing in line for a while I reached the counter, requested a simcard and some data, and ten minutes later I was all set up. I then went exploring (on foot) and took some 30-40 photos. There’s plenty to see in Nuku’alofa which is the largest city and the capital of Tonga.

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You can see the Royal Palace in the back.

On my second full day I went to meet with the Tongan Red Cross Society. I had dropped by the day before and left my number. My team had actually reached out to the Tonga Red Cross long before I left Samoa – but the person coordinating was in the field. I had therefore received a call and been invited for a meeting at 10am with Secretary General Sione Taumoefolau who’s been a part of the movement for 22 years. After a brief meeting I was told to come back again the next day at 10am. I then proceeded to look for the Tonga National Museum which on google maps was located where the New Zealand High Commission in reality was. A bit confusing so I asked an employee across the street at Friend’s Café & Tourist Centre for directions and was told that the national museum was opposite Vaiola Hospital some way out of town. On my way there I spotted a sign reading “Tonga National Museum” but there wasn’t an obvious entry anywhere?

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No luck so far...

Eventually I found it but it was closed (in spite of what the opening hours read) and I was told by some random, but friendly, guy to come back the next day. I continued to walk in the heat until I reached Vaiola Hospital as I thought the national museum might still be out there. But a friendly woman opposite the hospital told me that the directions were wrong and confirmed that the place I had found earlier was in fact the national museum. I then popped in at Vaiola Hospital to hear about their PCR testing. I was required to get one done between day 3 and 5 after arriving to Tonga. Tests were done between 09:00am and midday and it was already well into the afternoon. Alrighty then.

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In the studio with the friendly Saane. My beautiful lei was given to me by Heta at Kele'a Voice :)

Later that day I was invited to join Saane Polutele at the studio of Kele’a Voice (radio). We had met the day before at Friend’s Café and talked about the Saga and how she had been introduced to it by her cousins. At the studio we had a nice chat about the Saga and particularly the budget and where the money came from. Is USD 20 per day a lot or a humble budget? How much has been spent since I left home? Am I brave to venture into every country? And many other things. I must admit that on my first day in Tonga, as I stood by the sea and watched my safe haven of the good ship Papuan Chief sail into the horizon, I did feel slightly marooned. But I have been met with nothing but kindness and genuine curiosity wherever I have gone. It has been impossible to walk down a street without ending up in a random conversation: “where are you from?”, “where are you going?”, “what do you think of Tonga?”

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PCR test: I was asked to sit for a few minutes, then asked for ID, then asked for contact details, then told to take my mask off and received a nasal swab. Done.

The following day, yesterday, I got up at 07:15am (which is my new thing) and got ready to start the day. At 09:00am I was getting my PCR tests done at Vailoa Hospital, at 10:00am I was meeting Secretary General Sione Taumoefolau, then I would drop by at the national museum, and finish the day by writing the Friday Blog. It was super easy getting the PCR test done and the healthcare worker was very friendly (are you beginning to see a pattern here?). I was at the Red Cross at 10:00am but the Secretary General wasn’t. So, I had a nice chat with the logistics and disaster management ladies until he arrived. It is harrowing to hear about the eruption, the tsunami which followed, the layer of ash which covered everything, and the fear of it not being over yet. Now, almost eight months later, there are still many who live in fear that this isn’t over and that Tonga isn’t safe.

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The Red Cross has done a great job responding to the most vulnerable families and now the recovery phase is in full swing. But the work is thought to take at least two years. Around 10% of Tonga’s 100,000 beating hearts were affected directly by the tsunami and the ash. Fishing boats were destroyed, crops were destroyed, homes were destroyed, vehicles were destroyed, livelihoods were destroyed. It all seemed to happen all at once. Earlier this year, on Saturday January 15th, most people were mentally preparing for Sunday which is a special day in Tonga. In the late afternoon a loud sound was followed by a giant white mushroom which could be seen in Nuku’alofa, 70km (43mi) away from the volcano. The eruption column rose 58km (36mi) into the mesosphere!! NASA determined that the eruption was hundreds of times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima!! Terrifying!!! Fortunately, there were remarkably few casualties and injuries. But the long-lasting damage, psychologically as well as physically, continues to haunt the small tropical nation today. And the Red Cross is busy handing out cash voucher assistance, tools, and any support available to get the Tongans back on their feet. Secretary General Sione Taumoefolau showed up around 10:35am and after another brief meeting we agreed that I should come back again Monday :)

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Apparently the traditional tapestries (in centre) are being replaced by imported traditional grave stones. Family is very important for Tongans. Many graves were unfortunately washed open and bones were scattered during the tsunami in January. 

I went on to grab some lunch from Yummie Treats and got a sub for lunch and one to eat later for dinner. Then I headed back to Toni’s guesthouse. I’ve rented a car for Friday. I hope to explore some of the sights (or all of them). There’s plenty of stuff to see: blow holes, caves, scenic lookouts, beaches, interesting rock formations, historical sights, and it will be interesting to see something else than Nuku’alofa. Nuku’alofa is cool enough with several nice cafés and a safe and friendly vibe. But I’m hoping to join Swire’s good ship Highland Chief which is arriving on Tuesday. Highland Chief is heading to New Caledonia from where we can connect with another ship to Vanuatu if all goes well. There is nothing about the logistics and bureaucracy of this project which is easy and I have been deadly tired of it for a VERY LONG TIME. But this isn’t one of those entries. This is an entry in which I extend my gratitude to the government authorities in Samoa and in Tonga, to Swire Shipping’s seafarers and management, and to the many, many friendly people I have met in the streets of Nuku’alofa. And it is an entry where I share with you, that Tonga used to be the centre of a maritime empire which dominated the region. Think: “Roman Empire in the Pacific”. Very impressive indeed. And Tonga is furthermore the only country within the Pacific which was never colonized. Yeah, there is something about the Kingdom of Tonga…

 

 

 

I would like to thank our esteemed partners for their invaluable contributions to Once Upon A Saga: DB Schenker Denmark, Kameli, Red Sand Solutions, Salomon, the Danish Red Cross and Ross DK / Geoop

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Best regards
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - finally four countries from home.

"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"

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